College Students’ Response System Creates a Legacy of Safety

Atlantic Cape Community College students get hands-on education while building a sophisticated emergency response management system.

by Jim Moore / July 30, 2012
Photo courtesy of Atlantic Cape Community College Atlantic Cape Community College

Colleges have traditionally been transitory places — students come in, fill up on theory and head out into the real world leaving little trace of having been at the campus. But with the availability of easy-to-use mobile technology, students at Atlantic Cape Community College, located in south New Jersey, will have a lasting impact on the safety of the campus even after they’re gone.

The students in Atlantic Cape’s Geospatial Workforce Education Program are getting practical, hands-on education by using rugged handheld computers to build a campuswide emergency response management system. The idea is that emergency responders will have highly detailed, useful information at their fingertips if an emergency arises on the campus in the future.

Instead of copying existing GIS curriculum, the program was designed to the needs of
the marketplace. That started with two courses: introduction to GIS and geospatial data collection. As Luis Olivieri, senior manager of the GIS program, considered the technology needs for the courses, he knew simple GPS units were sufficient for the introductory course. However, they wouldn’t do for data collection; he needed to find something more suitable. In his words, he wanted to “put students in the field using a real handheld device with more capabilities than a basic GPS unit.”

Integrating New Technology

Although Olivieri doesn’t teach the geospatial data collection course, he helped design it and saw an opportunity to accomplish two important goals with one piece of curriculum. He and the course instructor believe students need real-life experience, not just book learning. And a recent Safe Campus Initiative program called for developing a “support system at Atlantic Cape to effectively respond to potential emergencies and manage crises.”

Voila: A class project to create a data-driven emergency response management system was developed.

Here’s how it works: The GIS students spread out across the campus and gather data. When they’re outside, students use the Nautiz X7’s GPS capability to georeference their location as they enter data, supplementing the GPS coordinates by cross-referencing locations on aerial photographs of the campus that are preloaded on the device. Inside buildings, they can note locations on building floor plans, which also are loaded on the handheld. (The students also cross-check building floor plans against the actual layout to find changes or discrepancies.)

As the students establish where they are, they note the location of building entrances and emergency exits; classrooms, laboratories and offices; fire extinguishers, sprinklers and alarms; electrical shut-offs; hazardous materials — anything an emergency responder would benefit from knowing. They enter their notations directly into the X7 using the Esri ArcPad program and also take contextual photos with the device’s 3-megapixel camera.

After students gather information, they return the handheld to a lab and upload the data to a central server using ArcPad.

“In the past, the students would have had to carry around a big paper map, find a spot they need to enter, make handwritten notes on a notepad, and then come back to the lab and enter the data manually,” Olivieri said. “This is unimaginably better.”

The next step is to distribute the data. The program’s goal is straightforward: “In an emergency, time is very important. It could be the difference between life and death,” Olivieri said. “We are putting together the data required for emergency personnel to act in the fastest possible way.”

The school wants a system in which police, firefighters, emergency medical technicians and other emergency responders can respond more quickly and effectively.

In the long-term plan, the data the students gather may be cross-referenced to everything from class schedules to individual information on students, staff and professors. That would provide a highly helpful level of detail in an emergency-response circumstance.

The Value of Detailed Data

Olivieri provided some examples — worst-case scenarios — of the kind of situations that schools, government facilities or businesses must be ready for even if the odds are long that they’ll ever occur.

For example, the system could aid firefighters while responding to a fire on the campus. “Before getting here, the fire department could have evaluated the floor plan of the building — they’ll have information on the location and access points to the building and to the rooms where flammable and hazardous materials are stored,” Olivieri said. “They’ll also know where the fire hydrants are and relevant information that will assist in a faster, more effective response.”

The system could also be beneficial during other emergency situations, such as a shooting on the campus. “Before the SWAT team gets there, they know the location of the building and the access points; they have pictures of the inside of the building; they can pinpoint where the shooter might be; they know the number of students in the classroom; they have a list of names of the students who are supposed to be in the room; and they might even have pictures of the students. In case they have to open a door, they know which key they need to unlock it.”

Olivieri added that, “Because they have the floor plan of the building and actual pictures taken within the building, they know about potential places where the shooter can hide.”

Traditionally, emergency responders arrive at a scene and must ask questions about the floor plans and available resources, but systems like this collect all that information and store it in one place.

All this information will be available to responders through a standard Web interface. No specialized software is needed to access the system — the emergency response personnel can access the system via a Web browser, user ID and password.

Easy Adoption

So far, so good: The students have taken to the handhelds quickly, although some were intimidated initially by a device unlike anything they had used before. Their excitement to be using a sophisticated GIS tool with an intuitive design and straightforward functions has made them eager to do the field work.

Olivieri wishes that he had purchased a few X7s with cellular connectivity options — using this capability, students could connect remotely to the central server and transmit data directly from the field without having to establish a physical connection.

As far as ruggedness, Olivieri got some firsthand experience with the Nautiz X7’s sturdy exterior. He was collecting units to check on them, and he picked up seven at once. “I dropped one, and it bounced off the floor on the rubber corner,” he said. “It didn’t have a single dent. And it was drizzling at the time; they all got a little wet. It was a good test.”

Based on the program’s success with the devices so far, Olivieri plans to find more ways to integrate them into the geospatial curriculum.

“A laboratory is not the same as a real application,” he said. “The students need the theory of GIS plus hands-on experience.”

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